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MyanmarHistory

The history of Myanmar is voluminous and turbulent and at times it can be a challenge to identify distinct figures and events from the melangerie of mythology and heady romance. On the seemingly willful merging of fact and fiction in the history of Burma laid out in the royal chronicles, Aldous Huxley wrote:

'It is as though a committee of Scaligers and Bentleys had assembled to edit the tales of the nursery. Perrault’s chronicle of Red Riding Hood is collated with Grimm’s and ... the credibility of the two several versions discussed. And when that little matter had been satisfactorily dealt with, there follows a long and incredibly learned discussion of the obscure, the complex and difficult problems raised in Puss in Boots …'

Leaving aside flying dragons and divine intervention - for now at least - there is still much of Myanmar’s history that we can be sure of.

Ancient Kingdoms andEarly Burmese Imperialism

 

Burmese school children are taught that their country’s history begins in the town of Tagaung in the centre of Myanmar. It was here, the royal chronicles parport, that the first ever Kingdom of Myanmar was founded by the Sakiyan prince Abhiraja, who arrived from India millenia ago with his family and a motley band of followers. After his death, one of Abhiraja’s sons went on to found the Kingdom of Arakan, while the other succeeded his father and was followed in turn by 31 more kings. Descendants from this dynasty, the chronicles go on to state, founded the Kingdom of Prome to the south of the country, which lasted for 500 years before the succession of the medieval Bagan Empire.

Colonial scholars in British Burma and their successors today have taken a sceptical stance towards the story of Abhiraja. What is agreed upon, is that if thousands of years ago there ever was an Abhiraja, he would not have found the Burmese plains empty. Archeologists estimate that humans were likely to have lived in the region since 75, 000 BC. In 2003 the BBC reported the discovery in Myanmar of a 45 million year old fossil, believed to be an ankle bone, that could suggest that our primate ancestors may have come out of not Africa but Asia, perhaps even Myanmar itself. Naturally there are many in the country who are more than happy to embrace this line of thought.

What is believed to have happened in the land we now call Myanmar between then and the Bagan Empire is mainly conjecture. It would be safe to say that in the years when Rome, Persia, the Mauryans in India and the Han Empire in China reigned from the north of England to the Sea of Japan, the valleys around the Ayeyarwaddy Delta were one of the rare patches left in peace, either due to indifference or disinterest on the part of the regional powers. Not only made up of obscure and disparate tribes, around the Ayeyarwady there would also have been city states with cultures and languages quite distinct from their larger neighbours to either the east or west.

One of the largest of these would have been Prome. Chinese travellers to the city reported that the citizens of Prome were marked for their piety and lived by the custom to ‘love life and hate killing.’ The people of Prome appeared to have existed largely untroubled until the 8th Century when hordes of the war-loving Nanzhao from the limestone hills around Lake Dali in West China raged through the land. Though bloody, Nanzhao supremacy was relatively short-lived. By the 10th Century they have faded from history, with their entire royal family being murdered in 902.

However, with the city-states of Myanmar in disarray, others from the north came where the Nanzhao had led, attracted by the fertile land and warm climate. Amongst these were the ‘Strong Horseman’, or in their own language, the ‘Myanma’.

The Burmese Chronicles claim that one of these Myanma, Pyusawthi, founded the Bagan Empire after vanquishing a great boar, a great bird, a great tiger and a flying squirrel, all of which had been terrorizing the local population. It is believed that Pyusawthi was in fact a descendant of the Nanzhao family, and with the lifestyle and customs he found on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy, created a fusion of the two that was to be the foundation of modern Burmese culture. From this point on, Burma history becomes a little clearer.

It was a couple of centuries later that the city of Bagan became the Bagan Empire. Anawrahta, a descendant of Pyusawthi’s and Myanmar’s first ‘Great King’, had seized the throne when still a teenager after killing his cousin in single combat, “his mother’s milk still wet upon his lips.” Anawrahta was to subjugate the surrounding principalities and unify a kingdom which well reflects the borders of modern-day Myanmar.

At the height of the Empire, Bagan became a centre of commerce, learning and spiritualism, with students, scholars and monks travelling from as far away as Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and the Khmer Empire (Cambodia.) Over the next couple of centuries the people of Bagan underwent a mind-boggling spree of pagoda and temple construction, up to almost 10, 000, the ruins of which continue to draw scores of pilgrims and tourists each day, almost a millennium later. The Bagan Empire established Theravada Buddhism as the dominant strain in the country, which continues to be the case today. Additionally, the earliest examples of Burmese script in its present form are dated back to Bagan.

Repeated attacks from the Mongols led by Kublai Khan eventually saw the fall of the great Bagan Empire in 1287. Shan tribes from the hills to the east rushed in to take control of the low country, while the Mon from the south re-established their own kingdom around Hanthawaddy (modern day Bago).

In the 16th Century, with Portuguese assistance, the country was united once more under the Toungoo Dynasty, and was referred to for the first time as ‘Burma.’ After having subjugated the entirety of the land, King Tabinshweti picked up an insatiable thirst for alcohol, first introduced to him by a Portuguese courtier. With no longer an appetite for ruling, Tabinshweti began to lose the territories he had conquered, while his conduct in court became more manic and erratic. Matters were eventually taken in hand. The king was killed when out in the woods searching for a White Elephant, the Portuguese courtier was dismissed, and Tabinshweti’s general and old friend Bayinnaung took the throne.

Bayinnaung was the second Great King of Myanmar and upon coming to power set about reconquering the land Tabinshweti had lost. Bayinnaung brought fire and sword to every renegade city, town and village, wielding the country together by force as well as reaching deep into Laos and the Kingdom of Siam (Thailand). One historian described Bayinnaung’s life as ‘the greatest explosion of human energy ever seen in Burma.’ Schoolboys in Myanmar read of his conquests as those in the West do of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and largely from Bayinnaung comes the ensuing belief that a strong unified Myanmar requires its rulers to have a firm, weapon-wielding hand.

Two centuries later, Bayinnaung’s descendants were unable to quell a Mon rebellion from the south. Having overthrown the dynasty, the Mon themselves were then faced with their own uprising, and were soon meshed into a civil war with the Burmese north, led by one Aung Zeyya, from modern day Shwebo. In May 1755 Aung Zeyya took the fishing village of Dagon and renamed it ‘Rangoon’, meaning ‘end of strife.’ Shortly afterwards Bago, the Mon capital, was also taken and Aung Zeyya rechristened himself Alangpaya, meaning ‘the future Buddha.’ He is the founder of the last ever Burmese Kingdom, the Konbaung Dynasty, and the third Great King of Myanmar.

For the Mon, their long held dreams of their own empire were sundered forever. The destruction of Mon-speaking society in the south not only doused the chances of another uprising but also led to a more compact ethnic nationalism throughout the Ayeyarwady Delta.

The Anglo-Burmese Wars andColonial Rule

British Imperialism in the guise of the East India Company had always been cautiously observed by the Konbaung Dynasty. Similarly, the possibility of French commerce gaining the upper hand in Burma was an ever-present concern in the corridors of Westminster. In the end it was attempts at expansion on the part of the Burmese kings both on the borders of Arakan and Bengal and that of Chin State and Northern India that proved the final catalyst for war between the two nations. In January 1824, the British governor-general told the East India Company Board of Directors that war was inevitable so ‘to humble the overweening pride and arrogance of the Burmese monarch.’ The First Anglo-Burmese War from 1824-26 was to be the longest and most expensive war in British India.

Despite disease striking the British camps, the tenacity of General Maha Bandoola, and the use of novel warfare tactics on the part of the Burmese such as trenches, in the end the natives were utterly outclassed by British weaponry, including the new congreve rockets. At the Treaty of Yandabo, Burma ceded the Arakan coastal strip from Chittagong to Cape Negrais, allowing it to be absorbed into British India.

A dispute over customs violations in Rangoon and the claimed abduction of two British sea captains gave the British an excuse to commence the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, which was briefer than the first and resulted in the British taking Rangoon and the port towns in the south of the country.

In 1857, Mindon Min, Myanmar’s penultimate and highly revered king, moved his capital from Ava (modern-day Inwa) to Mandalay. Mindon is principally remembered as one of the most devout kings of Myanmar, but he was also the instigator for sweeping political and administrative reform. The Court of Mandalay, unlike that of Ava, responded to the increasingly Europe-centric balance of power. Mindon accepted and engaged with the new world order, sending sons of the courts to be educated in Europe and a delegation to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

Due to fear of assassination, Mindon held off naming an heir until it was too late. When he died suddenly in 1878, quick maneuvering by one of his wives led to the young and nondescript Prince Thibaw taking the throne. Thibaw was conveniently infatuated with the schemer’s daughter, Supayalat. The subsequent massacre of 79 of his kinsmen seen to be potential rivals, including women and children, shocked the nation and was even reported in aghast editorials of European newspapers. Both mother-in-law and wife were strong-minded, ambitious and paranoid, and between them, it is said, drove the young king into an emasculated, gin-soaked state of depression. His own paranoia kept him within the palace walls from his coronation to the day the British arrived.

Trade disputes, rivalry across the British Channel, and rash diplomacy on the part of the young Burmese king, incited the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. The war lasted just two weeks; the elephants of Mandalay were no match for the world’s first ever machine guns. After a brief battle for Mandalay, the entirety of Burma became a province of British India. The last king of Burma and his court were swiftly exiled to India. Thibaw was to never again set foot upon his homeland, dying in Barrackpore not far from Calcutta in 1916. Following the fall of Mandalay the British annexed the entirety of the country. On March 1st 1886, to add insult to injury, Burma became not a crown colony but a province of British India. Though inhabitants of Mandalay were relieved and surprised that bloody massacre didn’t follow the fall of the Konbaung Dynasty, there was a bitter resentment against their new overlords which, especially in the first few years, was constantly erupting into skirmishes and fierce patches of revolt. The partial dismantling of the Buddhist education system, coupled with the British disregard for customs such as removing ones shoes when entering a pagoda, provoked further rancour and discontent.

The British quickly set to work on laying down infrastructure, much of which still remains today. The timber trade was expanded and the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company soon became the largest private fleet the world has ever seen.

Sweeping colonial rule was only extended to the areas where the Barmar were in the majority. The hill states of the Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Shan and Kayah kept their autonomy to a certain extent. This policy of divide and rule sowed the seeds for bloody strife in the years post independence up until today.

Under colonial rule British Burma saw a huge amount of immigration, principally from India and China. These wealthier arrivals who were savvier when it came to British customs, began to rapidly set up businesses and take the majority of the lower level civil service jobs at the expense of the increasingly hostile Burmese. By 1927, the majority of Yangon’s population was Indian.

Burma was seen as a hard posting by many of the British, who found the population difficult to govern. A variety of factors including high unemployment led to British Burma seeing the highest crime rate in the entirety of the Empire.

In 1937, Britain separated the administration of India and Burma and the latter officially became a crown colony. However the Second World War was soon to erupt, shaking the British Empire to its foundations and dramatically changing the course of Burmese history.

WW2, Aung San andThe Road to Independence

 

In the early years of the 20th Century there were protests throughout British Burma largely instigated by monks and students, both against colonial rule and in response to Indian and Chinese immigration. The latter referred to each other as thakin, ‘master’, as a way of stating their claim to be the true masters of the country. Aung San, father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was one such thakin, editor of the student newspaper at Rangoon University, and president of the All Burma Students’ Union. At 26 years old he left with 30 others to Japan, there to seek support for the struggle against colonial rule and to receive military training. They returned with the invading Japanese in 1941. These 30 former students were now the first troops of the Burmese Independence Army (BIA).

The Japanese invasion of British Burma was swift and clinical. The Imperial Army first entered the country in mid January 1942, at Victoria Point, the southernmost tip of mainland Burma. By March 7th the Allies were retreating from a burning Rangoon, and by May the Japanese had taken full control of the country. Myanmar History - Aung San BNA - Sampan Travel Burma had now joined the theatre of war, and it soon became clear to Aung San - now General or ‘Bogyoke’ Aung San - that the Japanese had no intention of relinquishing their control over the country. The BIA soon came to regard the new occupying force as worse than the British. Aung San said that though under the British the Burmese had been handled like oxen, under the Japanese they were treated as dogs. Led by Aung San, the BIA renamed themselves the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) and turned their sights upon those who were supposed to be their country’s saviours.

Under the command of General Slim, with the assistance of the BIA the Allies drove the Japanese out of Burma in 1945. In January 1947, General Aung San visited British Prime Minister Clement Atlee at 10 Downing Street and negotiated terms for Burma to gain independence within the year. Back in Burma, Aung San met with Shan, Chin, Karen and Kachin leaders to sign the Panglong Agreement, bringing them into the independent Union of Burma but also promising that these ethnic races could dictate their own political future if they were unhappy with the situation after a decade.

On the 19th of July 1947, an armed group of paramilitaries of Aung San’s political rival U Saw broke into a meeting of the Executive Council chaired by the General, and assassinated him and six of his cabinet ministers, including his older brother Ba Win. Aung San was only 32.

U Saw was swiftly arrested and hanged by the British. Much mystery still surrounds the assassination. Due to the fact that weapons had recently been sold to U Saw by low-ranking British officers, there are conspiracy theories that the assassination was an act of the British Government. Aung San continues to be regarded as a national hero today, celebrated as the ‘architect of Burmese freedom.’ The 19th of July, ‘Martyrs’ Day’, remains a day of national mourning.

Following the assassination, U Nu, the country’s foreign minister during Japanese occupation, was asked to lead both the AFPFL and the government, and the following year was sworn in as the country’s first Prime Minister. At midnight on January 4th 1948, Sir Hubert Rance, the last Governor of British Burma, met with Burmese politicians in Fytche Square (now Maha Bandoola Square) and in the presence of cheering crowds the Union Jack was lowered for the final time and the new flag of the Union of Burma was hauled up in its place. Burma had left the British Commonwealth and become an independent nation once more.

The Military Junta andAung San Suu Kyi

U Nu had to deal with the disintegration of the newly liberated country right from the start, contending with regional rebels, communists, resistance groups and plain mutineers. In time the government managed to gain partial control and commenced making some progress towards a functioning state in the 1950s.

Much remained in disorder however, and in 1962 U Nu’s government was ousted by a military coup instigated by General Ne Win. The federal system was abolished and Ne Win inaugurated ‘the Burmese Way to Socialism’ by nationalizing the economy, banning independent newspapers and all other political parties save for the Socialist Programme Party.

In 1974 a new constitution was realised transferring the power from the army to the People’s Assembly headed by Ne Win. Resistance bubbled over into violence on the streets, but the government responded with heavy gunfire and mass arrests. The following year the Opposition National Democratic Front was founded by regionally-based minority groups who began to mount guerilla insurgencies.

Discontent bubbled sporadically over the surface in the following decade, however it was not until the late 1980s that the people of Burma came out en masse to demand freedom from the dictatorship. In 1987 currency devaluation reduced the worth of people’s savings acting as a catalyst for anti-government action. Protests began at Rangoon universities; riot vans turned up on campuses to arrest hundreds of students and over 30 suffocated to death on the way to prison.

On the 8th of August 1988, at 8 minutes past 8 in the morning, dockworkers along the Rangoon River went on strike. The news spread fast and soon thousands of people were making their way to sites such as Maha Bandoola Park in the town centre and Shwedagon Pagoda. Pro-democracy speeches were made and the national anthem was sung. When night fell, electricity in downtown Rangoon was cut off and loud speakers demanded that the protesters return home. Many, principally the young, remained where they were. Not long after army vans pulled up and opened fire on the crowd.

 

Instead of quelling the revolt, the military’s use of violence inflamed the situation further. Protests continued and multiplied throughout the country, met with bloody repression by the army, who in one incident fired upon doctors and nurses outside Rangoon General Hospital. Over the next month others went on strike including the police, top diplomats, and the Burmese Broadcasting Corporation. The army went quiet and a state of near anarchy took over the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, was in Burma at the time, having remained in England after studying at the University of Oxford and marrying and bearing two sons with British academic Michael Aris. In 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi (also referred to as ‘Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’, or simply ‘The Lady’) was back in her homeland to tend to her ailing mother. However as she began to see injured and bloodied protesters admitted into the hospital where her mother was being treated, she rapidly became embroiled with the pro-democracy movement making speeches to enthused crowds.

On 18th September the army returned in full force, and over two days of bloody suppression the revolutionary atmosphere was seemingly put to rest. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (Slorc) was formed, declaring martial law and arresting advocates of democracy and human rights. In 1989 Slorc re-christened the country Myanmar and Rangoon became Yangon. Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been named leader of the newly-formed National League for Democracy, was swiftly put under house arrest, while many of her colleagues were incarcerated in Insein Prison.

Ne Win resigned the same year, though many believed that he was pulling the strings of government policy until his death in 2002.

In 1990 the NLD won a landslide in the surprise election called by Slorc. The result was swiftly disregarded. In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and the following year was released from house arrest. Though officially free, she was barred from leaving Yangon to meet supporters in 1998 and 2000. When her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 she was told she was free to leave the country, but Aris himself was denied a visa to come to Myanmar. Fearful of never being able to return to her country once she left, Aung San Suu Kyi stayed put. Despite pleas for mercy from the international community including the Vatican and the U.N., Slorc held firm. Aris died later that year. At the turn of the millennium Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest again, and save for a year between 2002 and 2003 was barred from the public for the next decade.

In 2003, Khin Nyunt, the head of the military intelligence known as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ became Prime Minister, and proposed to hold a convention the following year to draft a new constitution as part of a ‘roadmap to democracy’. The NLD boycotted the convention and soon after Khin Nyunt was replaced as Prime Minister and himself placed under house arrest.

In 2007 there was more public unrest, sparked by a rise in fuel prices. Buddhist monks held a series of anti-government protests which came to be known around the world as the ‘Saffron Revolution.’ Protests in the streets were combatted with gunfire and there were reports that soldiers had beaten one monk to death. In response, the All Burma Monks Alliance (ABMA) was founded, denouncing the government as ‘an evil military dictatorship’, and refusing to accept alms from military officials. By autumn, daily marches were taking place in the cities of Yangon, Mandalay and Sittwe. Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the demonstrating monks from the front of her house near Inya Lake in the north of Yangon, her first public appearance since 2003. On 24th September, somewhere around 100, 000 protesters marched through the streets of Yangon. A huge crack-down against the protesting monks sparked international outrage and condemnation, fuelled further when the shooting of a Japanese photojournalist was caught on camera.

In 2008, against all expectation, the government proposed new legislation to open up parliament to other political parties, while reserving 25% of the seats to military appointees. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest however she was barred from becoming president due to the stipulation that the president cannot have a spouse or children which hold another nationality to Burmese.

The NLD boycotted the election in 2010 and the main military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), claimed a vast victory in the first election for 20 years. All the main opposition groups alleged widespread fraud and the election was widely condemned as a sham by the international community. In March the following year, Thein Sein was sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian government.

“Myanmar’s Time in the Sun”

 Myanmar History, NLD Election Night 2015, Shwe Gone Daing, Yangon | Ben Frederick

Following the tentative steps to a more democratic system made on the part of the USDP, at the end of 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she and other NLD candidates would stand for election to parliament. That same year the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar and held talks with both Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, saying that the US hoped to improve diplomatic relations with the country so long as the progression towards democracy continued.

In April the following year the NLD candidates swept the board in parliamentary by-elections and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected as a member of the national parliament and the de facto leader of the opposition. Following the election the European Union suspended all non-military sanctions against Burma for a year.

In 2012, US President Barack Obama visited the country to offer "the hand of friendship" in return for more reforms and Thein Sein was invited to Washington the following year. A significant strike for democracy was claimed when four private daily newspapers appeared in 2013. At this point there had been no free press in the country for 50 years

In October that same year, as President Thein Sein accepted his nation's role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a promotional film ran with the line, ‘Now is Myanmar’s time in the sun.’ After almost half a century cut off from the world, Myanmar was now opening up and both foreign business and intrepid tourists rushed to the country.

Naturally, there are still a host of challenges that the country faces. Myanmar remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world and international bodies and foreign governments including the US have repeatedly raised their concerns in regard to the minority muslim group the Rohingya living in Rakhine State, reportedly under persecution by the Buddhist majority. Human Rights Watch have published evidence of mass grave sites in the state and label the attacks a form of ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Tension continues to break into violence between the Burmese army and various ethnic groups vying for independence or greater autonomy, principally in Kachin and Shan States. There are still a large amount of political prisoners incarcerated, and students in Mandalay continue to protest in solidarity with their peers arrested for marching against a seemingly undemocratic education bill in 2015.

In June that year, parliament voted to keep the army’s veto over constitutional change, suffering a blow to those who hoped for a speedy transition to democracy. However the general election in 2015 was held smoothly and regarded as free and fair by international monitors. The NLD won a landslide and took their seats in the much transformed parliament in February 2016.

A host of challenges now face Aung San Suu Kyi, the NLD and the country as a whole. However one can be cautiously optimistic that finally Myanmar is close to attaining a more peaceful existence, engaging with the rest of the world once more, and unleashing the vast potential of its people.